Monday, March 5, 2007

Rats Gone Wild! The only good rat is... ?

I’ve been known to go whole years without once leaving the five boroughs, or particularly wanting to. When I see my neighborhood on a movie screen, I miss it, even if I’m sitting right there in the Angelica. Lately though, I’ve been skipping town at the drop of a hat, and finding myself wondering what it might be like to live in all sorts of unlikely places.

One of the things I find myself noticing, when I’m anyplace but home, is all the colors, especially the moving ones. The jewel toned jays and cardinals, the soft pastels robins.

Even the rich, earthy browns of the chipmunks to whom I never gave a second thought before, and the occasional red foxes, still on the side of a road somewhere.

We don’t get much in the way of songbirds here in the village, east or west. The grungy grey pigeons and mousy sparrows are pretty much it. I’ve never spotted a chipmunk, or heard about a fox, though I wouldn’t be all that surprised if one turned up in Washington or Tompkins Squares one of these days. What we do have though, in spades, are rats. And what fine rats they are!

I first moved to New York in 2000. That summer, the lower east side was overrun by the biggest, most fearless, rats I’d ever seen. If you were here then, I bet you remember them. They were everywhere, and they didn’t scamper away at the sounds and sites of approaching human beings. Oh no, not these rats. They’d walk right up to you, as though you were their long lost, dearest friend. Or possibly, a delicious looking lunch, thoughtfully delivered right to them. I never found out which, and didn’t so much want to.

Over the next year or so, the rats dwindled back down to their usual numbers, and regained their scampering skills. As far as I know, no one ever really figured out where they had all come from, or how they’d grown to such gargantuan proportions. I do remember some speculation, at the time, about their having been forced out onto the street when the buildings whose nooks and crannies had housed them for untold decades were torn down to create some space for brand new luxury lofts. It seems a little too easy though, isn’t it, to blame the real estate developers for all our problems? Of course, if the shoe fits, then what’s a girl to do?

For the last six and a half years, I’ve been trying to tell people who didn’t see them about those lower east side rats. I’ve never gotten anyone to take me seriously though. Maybe because it was my first year in the city, they’ve assumed I was still adjusting to sharing my sidewalks with any rats at all. Or maybe because we’d all so much rather believe rats like those only exist in urban legends, with the ones who eat cats, after having been brought back from Mexico by clueless tourists. And it’s not like I had any evidence any such creatures had ever existed anywhere at all, let alone on Avenue A.

That all changed last week, though. Suddenly those rats, or their descendents at any rate, I’ll admit my utter ignorance on the subject of rodent life expectancies, were on TV. Better still, they were all over the internet, like the rock star rats they’d were always meant to be. If you haven’t seen the video yet, of the rat party inside the KFC on 6th avenue, right across the street from the West 4th stop, you should. Really. It’s like something out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, minus Marlon Perkins, and the exotic locale.

The KFC rats could easily pass for some kind of woodland creatures. They are enormous. The voiceover accompaniment estimates their weights as ranging from 11/2-2lbs. That would be around twice the size of your ordinary, everyday rat. But it’s not just their size that sets these rats apart. They practically glow with good health, and happiness. Their coats are thick and glossy, and big as they are, they’re in fantastic shape. Honestly, these rats look better than a lot of the people I know. We’ve got that wintry, pudgy, pasty thing going on. They don’t.

And did I mention how happy the rats are. They’re scampering around, using chairs as jungle gyms, turning trays into their see-saws and slides. That must be how they stay in such great shape. Who knows, maybe it’s all an act, but if it is, it’s certainly a good one. Do rats know how to lie? People do, of course, and some of our fellow primates, I think. Dogs I’m convinced are masters of deceit. My cat, on the other hand, is a pretty straightforward kind of guy. I’m not sure where rats would fall on the spectrum of mammalian honesty.

They could pass for woodland creatures, except, of course, they’re nowhere near any woods. They’re in a KFC. At least that’s what the news reports said at first. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite such a moment of self-righteous vegetarianism as I did when I saw that. I thought,” not my problem, rats in a KFC, take that, all you carnivores!” Or something like that. Fortunately, I kept it to myself, because I quickly realized this wasn’t just a KFC. It was one of those weird, hybrid, KFC/Taco Bells. And for this vegetarian, there’s nothing quite like a bean burrito from Taco Bell, when I’m on my way home from some kind of foolishness or other, at some ungodly hour, and nothing else is open. Those days are over though. I think it’s over between me and Taco Bell. At the very least, we need to take a break. A long one.

Given my tendency to look for signs and omens everywhere, I’m tempted to wonder if it doesn’t mean something, these rats from my first days in the city reappearing, when I’m starting to ask myself if this is still where I want to be. It probably doesn’t work so well though, to go looking to rats for answers to life’s big questions, no matter how happy they look. And odds are, by the time I’m asking a question like that out loud, I already know the answer, even if I’m not quite able to hear it yet.

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